“Link Wray and Gene Vincent… two of the great unknowns of rock ‘n’ roll.” – John Lennon
Few tracks have the influence and life experience of the only instrumental song in existence ever to be banned. If you can garner red tape and a tribe of musical disciples through a simple riff and drum roll, then you know you are propagating something sordid from the upper reaches of the rarefied realm we call energy and atmosphere.
“There was a guy named Link Wray,” Iggy Pop begins, “I heard this music in the student union at a university. It was called ‘Rumble’ and it sounded baaad.” For Iggy Pop, this crystalising moment prognosticated his future in a sonic crystal ball, and, needless to say, that future didn’t involve the university. “I left school emotionally at the moment I heard ‘Rumble’,” he concludes. The song was a seismic moment, and it hasn’t stopped influencing people since the very first moment it rattled the rafters of culture and burst into existence.
If you need any more proof of the sheer monolithic influence that Link Wray had in inventing the vocabulary of modern guitars then how’s about this praise from Neil Young: “If I could go back in time and see any band, It would be Link Wray and the Raymen.” And even Mark E. Smith, one of rock’s true misanthropic iconoclast who has even slandered the ever-giving rays of the sun, heaped praise on his hero when he met him in person: “You kept my head together for fuckin’ years, Link, when I was a teenager and in my 20s. You know, I like Elvis, I like Gene Vincent, but you were the one that kept me together. It is spiritual, it’s that Indian thing: DAANNNG! DA-NA-NAANNGG! If ever I thought about packing the business in, I’d put on ‘Rumble’, full fuckin’ blast.”
John Lennon, Mark E. Smith, Iggy Pop and Neil Young are far from alone too. In the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, Jimmy Page risks the potential embarrassment of an air guitar to show just how enamoured he is with the track. “I would listen to anything with a guitar on as a kid, anything that was being played and all those different approaches and the echoes, but the first time I heard the ‘Rumble’, that was something that had so much profound attitude to it.”
While the occult-fascinated Page doesn’t mention anything about the inherent “bad” sound that Iggy Pop elucidated earlier, Pete Townshend seconded its perturbing power when heralding the track in an interview: “I remember being made very uneasy the first time I heard ‘Rumble’, and yet very excited by the guitar sound.” Adding on another occasion, “He is the king, if it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble’, I would have never picked up a guitar.” John Fogerty also joined the party declaring: “Oh my God, that record was really important. When it hit was a hit on the radio, all the kids were tuned into it — not just me. Everybody understood: Man, that’s so cool.”
However, he is not merely a luminary whose influence exists owing to one single song. Albeit ‘Rumble’ was his Promethean moment, for my money he surpassed it. After a string of releases in the ’60s following the 1958 success of Rumble, his self-titled 1971 debut with Polydor Records represented a slight departure from that rock-heavy sound. It was a departure that divided his small band of followers, and one which made Wray remark, “In a way, I couldn’t care less if the album didn’t sell a single copy. We’re happy with it and we’ve done it our way.” The change may have upset a few, but it undoubtedly resulted in some of his greatest songwriting and in ‘Fallin’ Rain’ perhaps his greatest song.
The track is an exercise in the difficult art of juxtaposition and one which achieves it with aplomb. The delicate, honeyed belle melody and restrained vocals sit in contrast to the horrors he’s singing about. This dichotomy brings to mind one of Wray’s more bombastic quotes, “God is playing my guitar, I am with God when I play”, the bittersweet sounds and distanced narration of hardships equally invokes the bombastic notion of a God lamenting a world gone awry and its beauties shrouded in the melee of chaos. It is this divinity and scope that makes it not just an unheralded achievement in sui generis ‘70s songwriting, but simply one of the greatest songs from any era, period.
He may well have initially inspired the punk movement with a punctured amp and sludgy riff, but his take on writing for yourself and escaping the creative shackles of appeasing the gallery is something that many others have lived by. With a rock ‘n’ roll look that set the tone, a nose for atmosphere over virtuosity, a burgeoning philosophy to form a full artistic gestalt, and the songs to carry it off, it isn’t hard to say that Link Wray is easily the most unheralded progenitor of modern music.